Monday, 5 April 2010

Liberté ou la Mort

There was a story in the paper last week about the discovery of a copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence from the original printing in 1804, found in the British National Archives by Julia Gaffield of Duke University. Their website has more details on the document, including a full translation.

The declaration came after over a decade of war in the French colony of St Domingue, from the slave rebellion of 1791, through the rise of Toussaint L’Ouverture as their leader, fighting against the slave-holders and the French Republic in the war with Spain, then after the abolition of slavery in 1794 on the side of the Republic against Spain and Britain, then against internal rivals for power, and finally against Napoleon as the Emperor sought to reintroduce slavery to the island. In 1803 Toussaint L’Ouverture died imprisoned in France, as the more radical Dessalines led the war of independence in St Domingue.

From The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James, Chapter 13:
On November 29th Dessalines, Christophe, and Clairveaux (Pétion was ill) issued a preliminary proclamation of independence, moderate in tone, deploring the bloodshed of the previous years. On December 31st at a meeting of all the officers held at Gonaïves the final Declaration of Independence was read. To emphasise the break with the French the new State was renamed Haiti.
The first draft of the proclamation handed to Dessalines at the Congress was rejected by him as being too moderate. The second, which met with his aproval, struck the new note, ‘Peace to our neighbours. But anathema to the French name. Hatred eternal to France. This is our cry.’
Typophiles will note that the document was set in a French typeface designed by Firmin Didot.

Throughout C.L.R. James’s book runs an account of the interactions between principle and pragmatism, so much so that the book could be a response to The Prince, though Machiavelli is never mentioned. In parts the book is as much argument as history. It all seemed very relevant to some of the conversations over at Bob’s place, on idealism versus realism, and on Orwell, nationalism and patriotism.

My attempt at a concise conclusion:
- Pragmatic realism is necessary in the most idealistic fight.
- Realistic understanding of international relationships must look not just at governments’ views on national interest, but at entire societies and the shared and conflicting interests they contain.
- Nationalism, as Orwell used the word, interferes with such understanding.

I also have something inconclusive and less concise to say on all this, but it will have to wait, if I can keep it in mind at all that is.

Extra: Haitian history on the radio, from PRI’s The World.

Extra extra: Abu Muqawama strives for a more realistic realism: On the Relative Strength of Horses.

‘Liberty or death’. . . somebody, I can’t remember who, said something like: ‘It’s not or death. It’s always and death.’


bob said...

Thank you for that concise conclusion, with which I agree. Thank you too, of course, for the links. And thank you for the fascinating and important historical fragment and the typophilia.

CLR James' Black Jacobins is one of the books that most shaped my intellectual outlook. I recently went back to it, while looking for something else, for the first time in a long time, and found it richer and more rewarding than I remembered. It is a great work of literature; it is a great telling of history. The analysis is so subtly woven into the narrative that it does not intrude at all, yet its argument and message are crystal-clear at the end.

kellie said...

I've only just read it for the first time, and thought it was great. As well as appreciating a clearly told story that was unfamiliar to me, I also very much liked the way he made his arguments throughout, clearly and directly. I don't think his writing can be faulted for being biased when his viewpoint is so openly and honestly presented.

Anonymous said...

Of historical interest -- You can see a clip of Toussaint's last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film "The Last Days of Toussaint L'Ouverture" at This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.